Thursday, February 05, 2015

The many names of Yithro

I've yet to find an adequate Rabbinic explanation for the many different aliases Jethro, father-in-law of Moses, uses. At his first appearance, he's called Reuel. The author of Judges called him Heber (4:11) and Keni (1:16). At other moments he's Hobab (Num 10:29), Petuel (Ex 6:25), Jether (Ex 4:18). I'm not alone in my confusion. The Sages of the Talmud were also puzzled:

  • Some thought that his real name was "Hobab," and that Reuel was his father;
  • Others thought that his name was "Reuel," interpreting it "the friend of God" 
  • Shimon Bar Yochai said he had two names, Hobab and Jethro
  • The general consensus (ie the mesorah) is that each of his names reflects one of his virtues. Here's the Jewish Virtual Library: 
    He was called Jether (Ex. 4:18) because he was responsible for the "addition" of a passage to the Pentateuch; Jethro (Ex. 3:1), because he "overflowed" with good deeds; Hobab (Num. 10:29), the "beloved" son of God; Reuel (Ex. 2:18), the "friend of God"; Heber (Judg. 4:11), the "associate" of God; Putiel (Ex. 6:25), because he had renounced idolatry (niftar; another interpretation, however, is that "he fattened calves" (pittem) for idolatrous sacrifice: BB 109b); and Keni (Judg. 1:16) in that he was "zealous" for God and "acquired" the Torah (Mekh. Yitro, 1).

Modern scholars are also divided. Many say Hobab is the J source name, while Jethro is the E name. Other read Exodus 2:18 to make Reuel Jethro's father. Still others say Reuel and Jethro are the same person, and Hobab is their son. The famous scholar W.F Albright argues that Jethro and Hobab can't be the same person because they play such different roles. Jethro is a man with seven daughters, and obviously elderly while Hobab, in Numbers 10:31, is obviously younger and more virile. He is persuaded by Moses to serve as a guide  who knows "where we should camp in the wilderness and can be our eyes"  ויאמר אל נא תעזב אתנו  כי על כן ידעת חנתנו במדבר והיית לנו לעינים

Hobab, therefore is not Moses's father-in-law, as the Masoretic text says in Num 10:29 and Judges 4:11 but his son in law and the the word hoten should be read as hatan.

Here's the verse. As you Hebrew readers can see its a simple matter of changing the vowels.

 ויאמר משה לחבב בן רעואל המדיני חתן משה נסעים אנחנו אל המקום אשר אמר יהוה אתו אתן לכם לכה אתנו והטבנו לך כי יהוה דבר טוב על ישראל

[Update via Josh @Parshblog I see Ibn Ezra has the same reading only he argues that hatan can be a brother in law, too.]

This somewhat solves the problem, I think. To review:
  • Jether, Reuel and Jethro are one. (Why he has two names (Jether is a diminutive of Jethro) is unknown) 
  • Hobab is Moshe's son-in-law (or brother-in-law)
  • Petuel is a different man (the text never calls him Moshe's FIL.The identification is a drasha
  • Heber is a different man (the text never calls him Moshe's FIL.The identification is a drasha
  • Keni is the name of a tribe, or family, or ethnic group (This fits the sole use of the name in Judges 1:16)

Now we need to figure out why some passages call him a Midianite while others say he's a Kennite

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